R.I.P. “Popcorn” Sutton

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the legendary moonshiner, died March 16 at his home in Cocke County, Tenn.

Photo by Michael Stock

According to his wife, Sutton took his own life to avoid going to jail for 18 months under a looming incarcerations for moonshining and weapons charges. She found him dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning inside his Ford Fairlane, a “three-jug car,” as that was how much he’d paid for it.

He was 62.

It was a tragic end to the life of a man regarded by many as the quintessential mountain moonshiner. Famous for the quality and inventiveness of his wares, along with his unmistakable personal style (overalls, hat and a beard of mythical proportions), Sutton seemed the last of a dying breed.

Like saint’s relics from another time, Sutton’s moonshine took on an almost mythical quality, attracting no small share of pretenders. If everything that supposedly came from his stills actually had, there would have had to be three Popcorns, all working around the clock (though he was prolific enough to have hundreds of gallons on hand when the law raided his property).

In the defiant tradition that he proudly owned, Sutton didn’t exactly go to pains to hide his craft. He showed up in several documentaries (look up his name on YouTube) and authored a now rare and sought-after book “Me and My Likker: The True Story of a Mountain Moonshiner.”

Before his arrest, he’d been working with white corn liquor (or “likker”) if you prefer.

Just over a year ago, Sutton was charged with making and distributing untaxed whiskey, along with possessing a firearm (illegal for Sutton due to a previous moonshining conviction).

Sounding like a Prohibition-era barrel buster, ATF Special Agent in Charge James Cavanaugh of the Nashville Field Division said in a written press release accompanying the announcement of Sutton’s arrest: “The truth though is that moonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime. This has not changed over the years. The illegal moonshine business is fraud on taxpayers in Tennessee and across the country.”

Sutton pled guilty to the recent charges.

There was a backlash, with dozens of people from Tennessee and North Carolina signing a petition calling for leniency for Sutton, who was aging and not in the best of health, but the pleas fell on deaf ears.

While I can’t claim to have had any of Sutton’s rare concoctions myself, I’ve encountered a few recipes (allegedly) derived from his. While moonshine’s strength is legendary, the good stuff doesn’t have an overly harsh taste; one I sampled tasted like apple pie.

I’ve got it on good authority from several sources that many of Sutton’s most famous recipes: Dirty Water, Orchard and, of course, Apple Pie, are safe and sound, and in good hands.

Popcorn Sutton is gone. But his legacy may be that moonshine will never die.


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